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What does workplace bullying look like?

Most people have an opinion about what constitutes bullying in the workplace - and many would accept the way Acas characterises it as 'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient'.

But views are likely to differ on where the line should be drawn between banter, for example, and insulting behaviour, or between robust management and abuse of power, or where a strong personality becomes an intimidating one.

Such uncertainties are possibly exacerbated by the lack of a legal standard for bullying in employment legislation. Unless bullying is related to a 'protected characteristic' and amounts to conduct defined as harassment in the Equality Act 2010, it's not possible to make a direct complaint to an employment tribunal about it.

What bullying looks like

New Acas research, however, has examined what bullying and ill-treatment commonly look like in the workplace and how best to tackle these behaviours.

pdf icon Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces [429kb] looked at sample calls to the Acas Helpline, along with findings from other research, and found that negative behaviours could be manifested in 'extremely diverse ways', from incivilities, such as shouting, eye rolling and verbal abuse, to more concerted patterns such as ostracism.

Many callers alleging bullying had talked about problems with their managers or employers, backing up wider research which shows that bullying is most often instigated by someone in a more powerful position than the recipient.

Allegations of ill-treatment were often mixed in with other complicating factors. Deteriorating relationships in some cases had been triggered by issues of work performance or sickness absence being raised by managers - leading to a sense of of ill-treatment and unfairness from employees.

But the other side of the coin was that some employees alleged that their performance or health was being adversely affected by ill-treatment from their colleagues or managers.

Others said that their allegations had been part of 'a tit-for-tat escalation of formal processes while the root causes of conflict remained unresolved'.

A change in management personnel had led some long-term employees to feel that they had 'fallen from grace', finding themselves subject to 'perceived ill-treatment'.

There was often a loss of confidence on the part of those on the receiving end of unwanted behaviour, and many were reluctant to use the term 'bullying' to describe their problem.

Improving the workplace climate

Some had absorbed the impacts of ill-treatment for several years, only resorting to advice from Acas after it had already taken a significant toll on their health and wellbeing.

Ill-treatment could build over time until employees dreaded going to work, or found stresses at work were affecting life at home, or had taken leave to escape the workplace.

The calls suggested that there could be a tendency for managers and employers to underestimate the seriousness of bullying, with some downplaying unacceptable conduct as 'strong management' or just a function of a robust personality.

As a result, the report said one key to tackling bullying most effectively is to address the 'workplace climate' so that ill-treatment - whether at the minor end of banter or incivility, or at the more serious end - does not become normalised or institutionalised as just 'the way things are done'.

Further information on best practice for successful management of bullying and unwanted behaviours can be found in the Acas policy paper Seeking Better Solutions: Tackling bullying and ill-treatment in workplaces in Britain.

Acas publications and services

Acas has detailed information for employers and employees on Bullying and harassment, including the pdf icon Advice leaflet - Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers [173kb].

Acas experts can visit your workplace and work with you to develop a robust bullying and harassment policy and help you deal with related issues more effectively. See Equality and diversity: how Acas can help for more details.

Practical training is also available on Bullying and harassmentDiscipline and grievance, improving Skills for supervisors, managing Absence, Handling difficult conversations, and Stress in the workplace.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.


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